Another exam this morning. Christ what a paper. Answer three questions out of four; was going to be out of five but they had to cancel a lecture or two so they curtailed our choice to compensate… Which meant that being weak in even one area was a big risk.
And I was weak in one. This paper was Information System Innovation, a strange mix of investment decision-making, Intellectual Property law, and Open Source idealism. At all costs I wanted to avoid a question on business metrics, the tedium of which makes my brain cry.
I got lucky. My favourite area – Open Source Software – came up in two questions. If anyone on the course had been trying to avoid Open Source on the other hand, they were pretty much stuffed and mounted. And this after they told us explicitly that there would be no overlaps.
My only real problem with the paper was that there wasn’t time to say all I wanted to say. So strange to be answering questions about the likes of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, people who before this seemed more like figures out of folklore. Weirder still to think that when I graduated with my primary degree, none of the stuff on this course had happened yet.
So despite the stress I actually enjoyed the exam. This may not be a good sign, as it means I managed to go on at some length about things I have opinions on. Apple versus Samsung, Menlo Park versus Xerox PARC, IP in an age of 3D printing. Did they even want opinion? Did I show I was fully engaged with the material, or rave about stuff that was only tangentially related? Essentially, I can only have done either a brilliant or a disastrous paper.
Linux – it’s like a shark or an iceberg. Most of it’s below the surface but it’s moving fast and you really ought to know about it.
The majority of people, if they’re aware of it at all, probably think of Linux as the non-commercial alternative to Windows or Mac favoured by people who use computers less to get things done than because they actually enjoy it. Which is a shame in a way, as it gives a wholly wrong impression of its significance. Linux is so much more than an operating system for nerds. Indeed you probably use it yourself, every day. Each time you visit a website the chances are good that you’re talking to a computer running Linux. Smart devices in your home like satellite boxes and DVRs, even TVs now, use Linux. If you have an Android phone, that’s based on Linux. Governments are adopting it, and it is far and away the favourite operating system for the world’s most powerful supercomputers.
So it should be surprising that on the workplace desktop – still the biggest, most visible, and most lucrative computer market sector – it runs a very distant third. How come?
Counterintuitively, because it’s free. After all the PC is not ruled by Windows and Mac OS because they’re cheap. Rather it’s because people can make money out of them. Huge ecosystems of supporting industries have grown around these computing platforms – software, hardware, services, training, maintenance, publishing – in no small part because there was a key partner there offering support and leadership.
How do you make money out of a system no one owns? With whom do you form a partnership? How can you be sure, when no one’s in charge, that it’s going to develop in a direction that will suit your business? It’s tricky.
Unless of course you take a leadership role yourself. It seems the best way to make money from Open Source Software like Linux is often to step up and be that key player. This is what Google did with Android, making it the world’s most popular phone OS. Or Red Hat, whose version of Linux is one of the most successful systems in the server sector. Each brought their own business model; Google of course is ultimately selling advertising, Red Hat its expertise and support.
If anyone is going to turn Linux into a household – and an office – name it is surely Canonical. This is the power behind Ubuntu, the most popular and user-friendly desktop version of Linux so far. And their vision doesn’t stop at the desktop – nothing worthy of the name could these days. In recent weeks they’ve launched Ubuntu editions for tablets, phones and TVs. It seems they plan to have devices running their software in every major market sector.
Ubuntu TV – It’s a lot like Windows Media Center except for the giving money to Microsoft part.
It’s an extraordinary ambition, and if they can pull it off then Canonical/Ubuntu will be up there with the big girls, sitting proudly alongside Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But can such a fabulous commercial edifice really be built on open foundations? So much of Linux is being developed by people who work for competing organisations – or who aren’t being paid to do it by anybody.
Indeed community disenchantment may already be starting to show. Ubuntu is no longer flavour of the month. Once hugely popular with the sort of Linux user who doesn’t actually want to reinvent the wheel but just needs something that can be installed and maintained with the minimum of fuss, Ubuntu – and its slightly geekier sisters Kubuntu and Xubuntu – drove all before it. No longer; the flavour now is Mint.
This is a different Linux variant (or ‘distro’, to use the jargon). Indeed it’s very much a variant of Ubuntu, just with Canonical’s more commercial ideas stripped out. (This ‘forking’ is perfectly legal in the OSS world – in fact it’s the whole idea. Ubuntu itself is based on the well-respected Debian distro.) Mint’s popularity though was given a huge boost when Canonical introduced their ironically-named Unity interface.
Some of the resentment of this was silly. Unlike Windows or Mac where the graphical user interface is part and parcel of the system, much of the beauty of Linux is that you can choose – even create – your own. For some however it’s a cause. There have long been two main Linux desktop camps: Gnome and KDE. Ubuntu had been on the Gnome side, so its defection – to a third camp of its own invention yet – was seen by many as betrayal.
More seriously though, Unity is very clearly a touch-orientated interface. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be similar on all types of device. Rather like Windows 8 this makes it less efficient – or put it another way, more annoying – for users stuck with an old-fashioned mouse. And as Linux tablets barely even exist yet, that means pretty much all of them. For the first time, Canonical were allowing their commercial vision to degrade the user experience.
But that was as nothing compared to the next change. A feature of Unity is that you can find a file or application by typing its name in a search box. If what you type isn’t on the computer, the newest version of Ubuntu continues the search on the Web – specifically, to Amazon.com.
“Crochet Patterns not found. Do you want to purchase Crotchless Pants?”
This unasked-for advertising feels a bit like an invasion of privacy. The building of it right into the operating system feels a lot like a kick in the teeth to the non-commercial ethos that engendered Open Source.
Making money in itself is not the problem. Google, Red Hat, even that old devil IBM make a lot of money out of Linux. Where I think Canonical sail close to the wind is in identifying themselves with Linux more closely than any company before. Independent computing creatives will resent it deeply if they come to be perceived as dupes – or worse, minions – of a commercial giant.
There are two questions here really. The first it whether Canonical/Ubuntu can maintain the goodwill of the wider Open Source Software community. The second is whether they can realise their vision without it. Perhaps they can, but I think it would be a minor tragedy if they did.
One thing over which there’s no question though: Open Source Software can continue without Ubuntu.
Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.
Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.
My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.
Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.
You know when you’ve got some news or an idea you’re dying to tell someone, but can find no one who has the faintest idea what you’re on about?
I’m trying to learn some advanced Web design. Briefly, websites were originally done pretty much like you might lay out a document or design a magazine spread. You put things in their place, they stayed there. The more modern way is to use a ‘content management system’ (CMS). With this you just design the template of your page, then upload your content. The user enters search terms, and a page containing what they want is created for them.
This is obviously a lot more complex, as your website is now essentially a computer program. But there are plenty pre-existing systems you can use. WordPress, the one behind the blog you’re reading, is a fine example.
I’m using the CMS called Drupal because it’s widely said to be the most flexible and capable of all, and if I’m going to the trouble of learning any it might as well be one I can use for other things. But lord, I bit off something chewy. It has that vast sprawling-ness so typical of popular Open Source Software projects, and the learning curve is vertiginous. It’s made out of modules; a core with all the basics built in, then countless others you can add for greater functionality (and complication). I parachute into this jungle with little idea of how to tell a tree from a tiger.
But sometimes things are hard for wholly wrong reasons. I was stuck there for weeks – well, hours spread over weeks – because something really basic didn’t work. You see I want a site I can upload cartoons to, so that people can search through them. But Drupal 7 flatly refuses to display images in search results. Imagine how annoying that would be on eBay. Of course I thought that this was my fault, that I’d just got one of its (many, many) settings wrong. But I discover eventually that it’s a bug. The only solution – or at least the only one simple enough for me to implement – was to add a whole other module that did it right.
So I have solved my first real CMS problem, and went to bed tonight with the basics of my new site actually working. Whereon I find I’m too excited about the damn thing to actually get to sleep.
I’m trying to be good here and give my new phone’s battery the best possibly start in life. I was advised that the way to do that is to completely flatten it and then recharge it for seven or eight hours, while switched off. Several times. That means I can’t use it while it’s charging, and as most of what I do want to do means going online, I can only squeeze maybe eight or ten hours of messing around with it out of a day. No of course that’s not enough!
Connecting it to the PC would charge it too, so I can’t synchronise it properly and, what’s much worse, can’t download the latest firmware. Ah! Nerd hell. And of course, I can hardly use it as my working phone either. So for the first few days it’s an invalid.
Just as well perhaps. At least I’ll have had some practice using it before anyone sees me trying in public. Having a phone as noticeable as this and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with it has too much comic potential. And I’ve never had an Android phone before (well, I did have an experimental Android install on my N900, but it wasn’t really usable), so I’ve little experience with it.
It has to be admitted, Android is a whole other operating system.There’s a lot I like about it already, but there are constant reminders that it’s not Windows or Mac OS, or even Maemo. I think what I miss most is control keys. Control+z especially… After that, definitely arrow keys or an equivalent. Moving back a single letter, for example, is not easily done by poking text on screen. I feel like the interface was conceived to work with single as well as multi-touch input, and in consequence is more restricted than it really needs to be now. But the Swype keyboard at least tries to make up for that, and works impressively well.
Plus I haven’t really used a capacitive screen before. With the N900 I could hit tiny links and so on with a fingernail, without having to zoom in, and it’s frustrating now when that doesn’t work. Basically I have to unlearn what I spent the last year learning.
Two years ago Nokia’s future was going to be Maemo, a cutting-edge operating system based on Linux with a sleek interface to replace the veteran Symbian OS. The phone that would bring it was the N900. This had the same processor as the rival iPhone 3GS, plus a much better screen and camera, neat slide-out keyboard, a kickstand and great stereo speakers for watching video, and even features the iPhone lacks to this day like real multitasking and a memory card slot.
As Nokia had been and was still the leading maker of smartphones, you might imagine a pent-up market of loyal customers gagging for a device that would show that upstart Apple. Yet when it arrived they stayed away in droves. The N900, very arguably the most advanced and capable phone yet made, was a magnificent, absolute, utter market failure.
What the hell went wrong? More than one thing, clearly. A phone with that much going for it could surely have survived one weakness, maybe even two or three, and still gone on to be a big seller.
Four though is pushing it.
The other week I showed it to an iPhone-using friend. She was interested, but asked – quite innocently – “Why is it so thick?” It’s true, it’s as thick as a brick. Downright chubby. Though its other dimensions are almost identical to the iPhone 3GS, it’s half again as deep. Is that such a bad thing? Thickness is actually a practical advantage in a phone, there’s little chance of cracking this one in your pocket. But such arguments weigh little in the scales of fashion. People have to be slim, therefore our phones have to be slim too – that seems to be about all the logic there is to it.
An even more damaging shortfall though was the strange absence of multitouch. Perhaps Nokia had too little experience with the necessary screen technology, but launching the N900 without a modern interface was like naming a ship “Abandon”. A resistive screen with a stylus for tapping little icons was an interface from obsolescent Windows Mobile and historic Palm devices. Nobody wanted one now.
Nobody, except a few freaks such as myself. Resistive is far better suited to drawing than the capacitive type of screen used for multitouch. Capacitive requires a large contact area with the surface, making precise detail impossible. Plus it lacks any dimension of pressure sensitivity, while resistive screens can be highly responsive to changes in the pen press.
Combined with pressure-aware Linux drawing applications like MyPaint, this ‘outdated’ resistive interface allowed realistic pen-like or brush-like drawing strokes. This made the N900 the best phone ever created for art,¹ a powerful but sensitive digital sketchbook you could carry in a pocket. Many of the cartoons appearing on this blog were done with it – pencilled, inked, coloured, lettered and uploaded without ever seeing paper or PC. You can even edit images with GIMP, a program with capabilities comparable to the full desktop version of Adobe Photoshop.
But the very thing that most endeared it to me was a huge turn-off to the wider public.
Then there was the lack of apps. As Apple were first to realise, shopping is part of the experience now. A phone is nothing without stuff you can buy for it. There are some very good apps available for Maemo – but almost none to buy. Its Open Source Software roots meant that people were keen to contribute useful stuff. With a little tweaking it could even run apps built for desktop Linux. But that actually worked against a market for the Maemo platform. Professional app developers were discouraged by having to compete with free.
And this cultural clash, Open Source on one hand and commerce on the other, created other unforeseen problems. If you’ve got an issue with a community-developed program, to whom do you complain?
You don’t. In the cooperative world of OSS you file a bug report, documenting the issue and the circumstances that produce it. Which is lovely, but customers who’ve paid money for a fancy phone hardly expect to have to help out as well.
Nor do they expect tech support that tells them to open a terminal window and enter Linux commands. That isn’t actually as intimidating as it might sound, but “Buy this and soon you’ll be learning Linux” is not the sort of slogan that say Apple would use. Or indeed anyone who wanted to sell anything.
And yet… It was so damn promising. If they had moved quicker to smooth off the edges of Maemo, if something like the N9 had arrived a year earlier – while people were still actually waiting for it – it might have been a hit instead of a peculiar footnote². Instead, Nokia paid brutally for not getting their collective arse in gear.
But, it was a remarkable achievement and a fascinating experiment. Even when it’s no longer my primary phone I’ll keep the N900 around, especially for travel, as an incredibly miniaturised PC. They can be picked up new on Ebay for under $200 now, I recommend them highly.
A footnote to the footnote: There are rumours that Nokia have quietly continued their Linux-based development – just not for smartphones. Dubbed Meltemi, a descendent of Maemo is rumoured to be the future replacement for the S40 “dumbphone” system that has done so well for them for so long, and could be used to bring smartphone-like features to low-cost devices. That might prove competitive against the rising tide of (frequently awful) cut-price Androids. A sad end for the noble Maemo maybe, but it could save Nokia’s bacon – and of course make them less dependent on Microsoft. Who’s to say that a Linux smartphone will not rise again?
All the time I’ve been writing articles under the heading “What Phone Is Right For You?“, I have never confessed to what I actually use myself. Do I favour the Apple or the Blackberry, Windows or Androids?
None of the above. There was a reason I didn’t bring my own choice into it – the phone that’s right for me probably isn’t right for you. Or most anyone, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary piece of kit. But it sold in the hundreds of thousands at best, rather than the millions a hit mobile device needs.
Which is a shame, because it could have been the future.
That device is the Nokia N900 – less a phone really than a tiny PC with phone capabilities. Of course that can be said loosely of any smartphone, but it’s true of the N900 in spades. On this one you can have an actual desktop, and edit office-standard documents in powerful applications. Not bad for something you can carry around in your pocket.
Nokia achieved this with the help of the Open Source Software community – people who create free programs because they believe information technology should be free. Or just for the hell of it. OSS has brought us many great things, famously the Firefox browser of course, but also the free alternative to Windows and Mac OS called Linux.
The N900’s “Maemo” operating system is, like Ubuntu, based on the respected Debian¹ variant of Linux, so installing full-scale desktop applications is relatively straightforward. One great example: The GIMP², an Open Source alternative to Photoshop with all the image-editing power you could want. Thanks to this I was able to take, correct and upload the image above entirely on the phone.
And the usefulness only begins there. By hooking up a mouse and keyboard and using the TV-out as a monitor, I can have a desktop PC in any hotel room. Or indeed I can use the phone itself as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to control a PC from bed – which came in darn useful when I was ill – or control TVs and so on with its infra-red output. It’s versatility is matchless. Furthermore it excels as a media player, with powerful stereo speakers and a screen that wasn’t surpassed until the iPhone 4 came out.
Its greatest strength though has to be its browser. Nokia had been making specialised “Internet tablets”, portable Web browsing devices, as a semi-experimental sideline since 2005. The N900 just took that and added phone call abilities. Its browser therefore is proper Firefox, just with a finger-friendly interface, and brooks no ‘mobile view’ nonsense. It displays Web pages exactly as they’d appear on a desktop. With Flash, of course.
And though the phone aspect is a late addition, its integration is exemplary. Skype is just there – you can make and receive VoIP calls just as easily as ordinary ones. Similarly, IM services like Facebook and Google Chat integrate seamlessly with the phone’s text messaging. Contacts on different social networks can be merged into a single address book entry too. That’s just the way it should be.
So, what the hell went wrong? If this was such a paragon of smartphone virtue, why did no one buy it? Hopefully I’ll have the strength to face that sorry tale tomorrow.
Poignant little story – Debian was named for its creator, Ian, and his girlfriend Deb – before they broke up. He’s going to have a hard time forgetting her now.
The GIMP stands for The GNU3 Image Manipulation Package.
GNU stands for GNU Is Not UNIX4. Recursive acronyms are kind of an OSS in-joke.
Another really pleasant April day. The last one of course; by the time you read this it will be May, and instead of considering the good days a bonus we’ll see the bad ones as short-changing us. This is why April is the far superior month, it rewards optimists.
But I’m back in the windowless Windows cave, a net café with 17 PCs in various stages of broken. Late last night I defeated a secret second level boss defending them against their own administrators. Tonight I have two cleaned and ready to take the set of applications that the public will want.
If it were up to me of course, the public would get the apps I want. And they’d all walk out of the shop pleasantly astonished at how good open source software is now.
Yeah right. Customers faced with OpenOffice instead of the Microsoft equivalent are just going to react with panic and dismay. Though there isn’t really much to choose between the two, it’s a classic case of the market leader being the market leader because they’re the market leader; office applications are a natural monopoly. The only reason why OpenOffice still even exists is that it’s not for profit.
What I think stands a better chance at competing, in this market at least, is Google’s still-nascent attempt at doing the thin client all over again, Chrome OS, where the computer is running absolutely nothing but a browser, and all the applications and all the documents are out there in what marketeers now want us to call “the cloud”, or what we used to call cyberspace. In other words, a server farm in Indonesia.
Is it crazy? Doing your computing right there in front of you has simply got to be quicker than doing it over a network, however fast. But consider me. It’s six in the morning. I started at one in the afternoon. I am still tweaking the drivers and software and settings of these Windows machines so that I can start to make them ready to be made ready for the public tomorrow.
Just one installed program – and even that kept updated automatically over the Internet? For public situations like this, yes please. For the customer too, the convenience of always having their documents to hand no matter what computer they were made on would be wonderful. No more schlepping them around on flash drives. They’ll learn to love Google Docs.